- América Mágica: When Renaissance Europe Thought It Had Conquered Paradise
One reason the early modern European encounter with the peoples and places of the Americas is so interesting—and, occasionally at least, so entertaining—is European explorers’ and scholars’ heartfelt and obstinate belief in what seem more like the stuff of B movies than genuine features of the western hemisphere. Giants, Amazons, and El Dorados figure prominently in many European accounts of the New World.
These extravagant European notions about the extra-European world form the subject of América Mágica. Attending to early modern European expansion as a whole, but centering on fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Spanish ideas, especially those involving South America, the book’s eight chapters take particular features of wondrous America, investigate their Old World antecedents, and recount instances of European explorers and savants wrestling with them. A terrestrial paradise, a fountain of youth, monstrous peoples, mythical islands, and fabulous beasts all make their appearance.
The larger theme of América Mágica’s discussions of such marvels is that preconceptions formed by the Bible, folklore, and the intellectual legacy of classical antiquity conditioned European perceptions of the Americas. Explorers tended to see what their cultural background led them to expect, and the New World became the site of tales associated with the old. Christopher Columbus famously thought himself in Asia and then near Paradise.
That New World observations were filtered through Old World prepossessions is a valid, though not a novel, idea. J. H. Elliott treated the same theme in the first two chapters of The Old World and the New (1970), as did books published around the five hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas, such as Valerie Flint’s Imaginative Landscape of Christopher Columbus (1992). This should not be taken as a criticism, as América Mágica limns hypotheses Elliott sketched, and was, in fact, one of those Columbus quincentenary books, with its original French edition appearing only two years after 1992.
At its best, América Mágica exhibits one of the most impressive aspects of early 1990s work on Europe’s early modern encounter with the wider world: integrated consideration of ancient and medieval intellectual legacies, early modern cultural constructions, and the practical realities of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century life. In its chapter [End Page 389] on Amazons, for example, América Mágica offers three distinct and compelling explanations of the persistent idea of South American warrior women. It presents a vivid portrait of Iberian adventurers seeing in America a world reminiscent of the tales of Alexander and the Amazons told to Extramaduran and Andalusian youth. It suggests that accounts of formidable female fighters represented a natural challenge to a patriarchal Spanish colonial order. It hypothesizes that fluid gender roles among the Tupinambas could easily have led to Spanish encounters with actual warrior women. Rather than ridiculing what is often dismissed as a fantastic notion of benighted early moderns, América Mágica elucidates it by carefully examining the possible constituents of belief.
Exhibiting the virtues of the quincentenary moment, the 2007 English edition of América Mágica misses the insights of works produced in the last fifteen years. Its discussion of the Old World roots of early modern reports of Patagonian giants and “wondrous creatures,” for example, would gain in depth from reference to Adrienne Mayor’s studies of the fossil origins of Mediterranean and American monster tales in The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times (Princeton University Press, 2000) and Fossil Legends of the First Americans (Princeton University Press, 2005). América Mágica does an especially nice job of relating textual fancies to the very real circumstances that may have given rise to them. Tying resilient reports of American behemoths not only to European stories but also to Mediterranean and New World encounters with the bones of enormous extinct creatures would have reinforced one of the book’s strengths.